Opinion
Teaching Profession Commentary

How Do We Care?

By Bernice Lerner — May 01, 2007 7 min read

We teachers, ideally, care about our students, our respective subject areas, and managing our time well. More specifically, we care about that which affects our students: the particular milieus they must navigate and the events that shape their lives. We care about how we can best help them learn and hone skills, while upholding high expectations and offering needed support. We try to transmit information that resonates, to develop rich curricula and lesson plans. We search for methods that suit our temperaments and those of our classes, and that reflect good practice. Many of us care about our professional development, our career trajectory, attending to the various demands in our lives, and taking time to recharge. Rarely, however, do we stop to reflect on the ends to which all this caring is aimed. In Aristotelian terms, what is the telos, or ultimate goal, with which we are concerned?

Our work-related endeavors shape, in part, our destinies. Having chosen a noble profession, we have opportunities to regularly practice (and model) wisdom, justice, and compassion; in other words, to lead good lives. Must we not care about helping each of our students make strides toward this same overarching goal?

—Lucinda Levine

35lerner

Lest such caring seem esoteric, listen to the voices of educators who work in an extreme setting—a large urban public high school in Boston. In this school, 85 percent of the students qualify under federal law for free lunches. The students’ parents, a number of whom are single moms, struggle to make a living, and few earn more than $24,000 a year. Many of the teenagers are exposed to crime, violence, and drug addiction. Some feel they live in a war zone, with school being their only safe haven. Some carry knives, which they hide around the school’s grounds, to protect themselves. They must be vigilant, understand “the code,” never squeal, and know how to steal and manipulate to get what they need or want. They have low expectations of themselves and others, and low self-esteem. Other students fare well, and are engaged in their classes and work outside of school. Many own the standard fare of American teenagers—cellphones, iPods, and coordinating sneakers and clothes.

How do the educators of these students aim to help them lead good lives? In three ways: by enabling them to discern right from wrong, by fostering in them the desire to do what is good, and by encouraging them to take responsibility.

Teachers cannot assume that their students know right from wrong. The most troubled of this public high school’s students bring with them to 9th grade a horrifying history. They have had difficulty in school settings for years and lack basic skills. One counselor notes that parents are “the whole key”: If they neglect to think about their children’s needs and don’t consider education important, the teacher must care enough to impart fundamental lessons. Here are the words of this counselor on the subject:

“Part of my job is moral education. Students need to make their own decisions, so we must teach them how to make the right decisions. I call what I do ‘milieu therapy.’ For example, something happens—there is a fight in the hallway. And then the kids are all excited; it’s like watching a soap opera. So I process it with them, right then and there. One fight we had, the kids were watching, so my job was to get them back into the classroom. I promised to tell them the whole story, all the details. They would say, ‘Oh, you should have let them fight, you should have done this, you should have done that.’ Sometimes what they are saying is what would get them the results they wanted. So that’s why they consider it ‘right.’ But then, you flesh it out, asking, ‘How would that be if you were the other person?’ You don’t tell them the golden rule. You have to actually let them talk, and you have to listen to them.”

No matter where or what we teach, the goal to which our efforts should be aimed is helping our students lead good lives.

This counselor describes how, within certain groups’ mores, it is expected that boys will sexually harass girls, that girls beat up boys, that fighting between girls is vicious. She explains that students lie to her because they fear they will otherwise get into trouble, that she has rewarded those who tell her the truth for an entire day by taking them to Twin Donut. She has found that when she treats students with kindness and respect, they respond accordingly. And that she must also be “incredibly strict.” She will not tolerate swearing in her presence. Her students must say “please” and “thank you” or they will be asked to leave.

For students to lead a good life, they must not only know right from wrong, but also desire to do what is right. Countless newspaper columns this January were devoted to the behavior of Wesley Autrey, the man who leaped in front of a New York City subway train to save the life of a stranger who had fallen onto the tracks. Why the fascination with this courageous deed? I believe we need exemplars of human goodness to inspire us to want to act well. We need to be shown what is within the realm of human possibility.

A career-pathways program at this high school puts before students choices that they would not otherwise be exposed to. Between menial jobs and roles dramatized on television are a host of positions in areas such as law, government, and health care. Students who wish to contribute to society and live a solidly middle-class lifestyle do have realistic aspirations.

Beyond schoolwide initiatives, individual teachers try to foster in students the desire to do well. After the 9/11 tragedies, one teacher was disturbed that a majority of his students felt that the attacks did not concern them—they touched no one in their neighborhoods. This teacher cares that students register his own appreciation of history and its lessons, that some will want to expand their horizons. He tries, he says, to “work toward students’ interests as much as possible given the nature of the curriculum,” and to give them the opportunity to discuss sex, drugs, jobs, and other topics about which they need honest information. Perhaps most importantly, he and other of the school’s teachers debunk myths. They tell students who are disinclined to participate in extracurricular activities or put effort into their schoolwork (because that’s “acting white”) that they are making a huge mistake. Minority teachers in particular serve as authentic role models.

An English-as-a-second-language teacher at the school fears for her students who are recent immigrants. Though integration is desirable, she does not want them to adopt the unseemly behavior typically seen in the school’s hallways. She has observed that those who come from countries to which they cannot return put great effort into their studies. She names and reinforces positive habits. She cares that her students desire the good.

It is not enough, of course, to know right from wrong and to want to act well. One must, in order to lead a good life, take responsibility. In this urban high school, it is not unusual for abusive and/or lawless parents to blame “the system” for their children’s lack of effort or suspensions, thereby perpetuating a cycle of apathy and self-destruction. And when parents are satisfied with report cards full of C’s and D’s (as they had not done better themselves), teaching responsibility falls on school personnel.

One caring counselor gives concrete instructions. Sometimes this means making clear to students and their parents that teenagers must be provided with an alarm clock and breakfast, and be in on weeknights at a reasonable hour; that there are expectations regarding handing in homework, and consequences when a student breaches school rules.

Of course, there are many situations in which parents want what is good for their children, and where students assume responsibility. One special education teacher in this school is proud of a boy she believes will lead a good life. She says:

“Once somebody wants something, and then you give him the formula to get it and he has the strength and perseverance to go for it, he can succeed. We have one boy, we think he is going to be successful. He’s got low intelligence, tested almost borderline. His mother is low intelligence and doesn’t understand the system. So here he is: low intelligence, no support, but he wants to own his own business at Fenway Park, be a hot dog vendor. He’ll probably make it. The teachers say he’s such a nudge. He always gets what he wants. He goes after it.”

The ways in which these Boston educators care also apply to school communities in general. No matter where or what we teach, the goal to which our efforts should be aimed is helping our students lead good lives. Toward this end, we must care that they know right from wrong, desire what is noble, and exercise their will to act.

A version of this article appeared in the May 02, 2007 edition of Education Week as How Do We Care?

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